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“First Wives Club” series proudly shows the multifaceted black experience

The remake of the 1996 movie now stars Ryan Michelle Bathe, Michelle Buteau, and Jill Scott.

Getty Images for BET Essence Fes

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In iconic fashion, Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton, and Bette Midler once fake escaped from a New York City penthouse in a window-washer trolley screaming for their lives. Twenty-three years later, Ryan Michelle Bathe, Michelle Buteau, and Jill Scott took their own trolley up to a penthouse like “brown titty spidermen,” as Buteau joked. They’re all members of their own “First Wives Club.

“I think ‘First Wives Club’ is really the culmination of a lot of elements that embodies what we want BET+ to be about.” BET+ General Manager Devin Griffin told REVOLT TV at the red carpet of the world premiere of the series at Tribeca TV Festival.

Buteau, Bathe, and Scott star in the TV series reimagining the 1996 film as Bree Washington, Ari Montgomery, and Hazel Rachelle, respectively; three women reclaiming their time taken by their respective husbands. The core dynamics between the trio of friends on the show is the same as the film -- a businesswoman in denial of her marital issues (Ari), the profane comedic relief struggling with the loneliness of separation (Bree), and a celebrity restarting a career once inextricable of her estranged husband (Hazel). But, its showrunner, Girl’s Trip director and self-proclaimed “First Wives Club” super-fan Tracy Oliver, made sure the new version would be a bit more colorful and not just skin deep.

“The thing Tracy said to me was, ‘I need these women to be authentically steeped in the African-American experience and the experience of being in the sisterhood of African-American women,” Bathe said at the panel discussion following the premiere.

The multitude of blackness represented is more diverse than most of the depictions of black women on TV in comedies. Bree is a surgeon living in a $2 million brownstone, who will almost instinctively take off her earrings before she fights; Ari is an accomplished lawyer who can run her husband’s political campaign, cut someone down to size with invectives like “impudent,” “prevaricating,” and “philandering” in the same breath as telling someone about their “stank and funky asses;” and Hazel can belt out a beautiful high note to the crowd and belted out “biiiiitch” to her husband’s mistress.

“First Wives Club” remake isn’t simply recreating a black version of an all-white film. It’s showing that black stories can exist in any space.

“[‘First Wives Club’] really builds on well-known [intellectual property] and really reinventing it in a way that speaks especially to what the black experience is,” Griffin said.

The black experience is Ari telling her daughter of a black politician that she can’t be caught partying like the Bush and Clinton kids. The black experience is Hazel’s R&B career being threatened by ageism. The black experience is also Hazel leaving her home in the middle of the night with her robe and silk hair tie still on to whoop her cheating husband Derek -- played repugnantly by Malik Yoba-- on security camera footage like Solange in an elevator. So, if any of Hazel’s scorn feels authentically black, that’s because they genuinely are.

“I was talking with [Jill Scott] about [the show] when we were first discussing it and she was like, ‘Girl, you know I just went through a divorce?’ I was just like, ‘Oh, that’s fresh. I didn’t know that just happened,’” Oliver recalled during the panel. “She was like, ‘No, that’s good. I get to draw from some of that and use my art to deal with it.”

This show couldn’t have come at a better time. Even with black auteurs such as Donald Glover subverting comedy conventions to Emmy and Golden Globes gold, people of color are still largely underrepresented in TV, according to UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report of the 2016-2017 TV season. On top of that, there were only just a handful of black faces and stories nominated in the comedy categories at this year’s Emmys.

Mark Tallman has acted in numerous TV series including “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” “Rise” and “State of Affairs.” He told REVOLT TV that in all his years, “First Wives Club” was his first time on a show with a mostly black cast. To him, that’s why the acting on the show feels real. “There’s a family bond that is created on almost every set. But, man, you can’t help but be more comfortable with a bunch of black folks,” he said.

Buteau added: “There is a modern twist to it. The great thing about 2019 is that we can celebrate diversity. Twenty-three years ago, you were ‘the black friend’ or ‘the black neighbor.’ Now, it’s not that. But, also, women’s stories are timeless.”

The show has only been out for a few weeks and hasn’t been renewed for additional seasons yet. “We get into shows that have the potential to have a long story arc and return for several seasons. At the end of the day, we’re going to look hard at how our fans and subscribers respond to the show, as well, look at where the story is going,” Griffin closed.

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